Second World War poster showing merchant navy flag, the Red Ensign (Catalogue reference: INF 3/127)

This is a brief guide to researching records of merchant seamenseafarers on merchant vessels - ships that transport cargo or passengers serving after 1917. Many, but not all, records of merchant seamen survive from 1918 onwards. The records are kept in a variety of archives.

  • What do I need to know before I start?

    • Try to find out:

      • the name of the merchant seaman
      • their date of birth
      • their place of birth
  • What other resources will help me find information?

    • Books

      Some or all of the recommended publications below may be available to buy from The National Archives' Bookshop. Alternatively, search The National Archives' Library to see what is available to consult at Kew.

      Read My ancestor was a merchant seaman by Christopher and Michael Watts (Society of Genealogists, 2002).

      Read Tracing your ancestors in the The National Archives by Amanda Bevan (The National Archives, 2006).

Did you know?

The Central Indexed Registerregister from 1913 to 1941 of all men and women employed at sea, or Fourth Register of Seamen, was started in 1913 and maintained until 1941. The entries for 1913-1918 were destroyed, therefore the register covers the period from 1918 to 1940.

The dates given in our catalogue for the records of service do not refer to date of discharge but reflect the dates of service.

For the period 1913 to 1917 you should consult the agreements and crew lists. For more information read Crew lists, agreements and log books of merchant ships after 1861.

The National Archives holds the following proportions of agreements and crew listswritten agreements regarding conditions of service and crew lists filed by ships' masters with the Registrar General of Shipping after 1861:

  • 1861-1938: 10%
  • 1939-1950: 100%
  • 1951-1994: 10%

Most crew lists from 1863 to 1976 are held by the Maritime History Archive in Newfoundland, and are searchable online by ship's number.

Access to full details of seamen born less than 100 years ago may be restricted.

There are a number of reasons why you may not be able to find a record in BT 364 or BT 382.

It may be because:

  • the seaman was not a British seaman or did not sail on British vessels
  • the seaman was only employed temporarily and was not issued with a discharge 'A' number or a British Seaman's Identity Card
  • the seaman was an apprentice and had not yet been issued with a discharge 'A' number or a British Seaman's Identity Card